Alicia Vikander, actress (“Ex Machina,” “Testament of Youth,” “The Danish Girl”)
With three critically acclaimed indies under her belt in 12 months, it’s safe to proclaim Swedish beauty Alicia Vikander as the queen of the 2015 breakouts. Few people in the business can catapult themselves from virtual unknown to current “it” girl in such little time, but Vikander did so with the grace and versatility of an acting legend twice her age. Her debut as the robot Ava in Alex Garland’s “Ex Machina” was, for many, the supporting performance of the year. With meticulous detail given to body movement and facial expressions, Vikander creates an entirely physical performance that subverts the femme fatale in the most emotionally surprising way. Throw in a pair of performances that give gravitas to two prestige drams, and what you get is a breakout year like no other up-and-comer in the industry. -Zack Sharf
Josh Mond, filmmaker (“James White”)
As part of the Borderline Films collective (alongside his school pals Antonio Campos and Sean Durkin), Mond has popped up as part of some of our favorite indies of the past few years, including serving as producer on “Afterschool,” “Martha Marcy May Marlene” and “Simon Killer,” enough to make him a recognizable name in the film community. But it’s his feature directorial debut that really set him alight, an intensely personal story that captivated Sundance audiences earlier this year and marked both Mond and his star Christopher Abbott as rising talents to watch. His visceral, emotional and unique filmmaking style brings the right amount of grit to his film, but it also infused the feature with enough heart that it actually hurts. -Kate Erbland
Lola Kirke, actress (“Mistress America”)
It’s hard to match wits and charms with a powerhouse like Greta Gerwig (especially when she’s writing her own material, as was the case with both “Mistress America” and “Frances Ha,” which she wrong alongside director Noah Baumbach), but that’s exactly what Kirke was tasked with during this year’s screwball breakout. And she did it — boy, did she do it. As accidentally misanthropic college freshman Tracy Fishko, all Kirke wants is to fit in, but she finds her real bestie outside the confines of her carefully chosen university. Alongside Gerwig, Tracy zips throughout New York City and out to the suburbs in a madcap adventure that’s more about finding herself than anything else (even stolen tee shirt designs). Dizzyingly funny and totally unique, Kirke’s performance is always amusing and often very touching. -K.E.
Robert Eggers, filmmaker (“The Witch”)
Domestic audiences have to wait until February to experience the utter horror of “The Witch,” but for those who happened to catch it on this year’s festival circuit, starting with the buzziest premiere at Sundance last January, they know what a master of tone and suspense Robert Eggers is. Making his feature film debut, Eggers dazzles in the foreboding, crafting a horror film more obsessed with haunting you threw gradual uneasiness than simply providing you with a one-second jump scare. The film centers on Puritanical Christians William (Ralph Ineson) and Katherine (Kate Dickey), who haul their five children to an isolated patch of wilderness in the hopes of living out an idyllic existence. What happens next combines an elegant period piece about the dissolution of a New England family with a genuinely unsettling horror movie about possession. Few debuts knock you off your socks like this one. -Z.S.
Trey Edward Shults, filmmaker and actor (“Krisha”)
Shults’ disarmingly bold and personal “Krisha” seems destined to be a holiday favorite for years to come (the festival hit will finally arrive in theaters this year, so be ready to share it with your family come Thanksgiving, if you’re looking to give them some indie education and a bit of a shock to the system), but it’s also just one hell of an auspicious debut. Using his own family and a shoestring budget, Shults has crafted a searing (and very often quite funny) look at dysfunction, addiction and unbreakable bonds. No wonder “Krisha” won both the Audience Award and the Grand Jury Award at SXSW. This thing explodes. -K.E.
Daisy Ridley, actress and John Boyega, actor (“Star Wars: The Force Awakens”)
Yeah, yeah, the biggest movie of the year isn’t very indie, but considering that so much of “The Force Awakens” rests in the (still very capable) hands of a pair of newbies with indie roots, this one gets a pass. Ridley is the real find here, an unproven new star-in-the-making who ably steps into leading lady territory with her eye-popping turn as Rey, who just might hold the secret to whatever hell else the rest of the newly hatched trilogy is going to unleash on it dedicate fans. Matched up with Boyega, who fans of “Attack the Block” have been waiting to see bust out on a large scale for whole years now, and “The Force Awakens” is toplined by a brand new duo that seems to have already entered classic territory. If stars like these are the future of the blockbuster, we are sold. -K.E.
Emory Cohen, actor (“Brooklyn”)
Sure, Saoirse Ronan’s luminous Eilis may be the obvious protagonist of John Crowley’s shimmering “Brooklyn,” but it’s Emory Cohen’s heartbreaking turn as her eager paramour Tony that really lets her shine. Cut from the same cloth as old-school romantic leads and classic charmers, Cohen’s Tony is the kind of leading man we don’t see nearly often enough, and the role establishes Cohen as a major romantic lead to watch. But while his swagger and confidence are initially appealing, it’s his deep sensitivity that really knocks it out of the park (Dodger fan or not). -K.E.
Marielle Heller, filmmaker and Bel Powley, actress (“The Diary of a Teenage Girl”)
Heller and Powley don’t just talk the talk with their bold, inventive and hugely honest take on the graphic novel of the same name, they walk the walk, too. The film itself never balks at its feminist message and free-wheeling depiction of female sexual desire (an element that earned it some restrictive ratings in some countries), and both Heller and Powley have made it clear that those ideals (and ideas) are deeply important to them. A film like “Diary” is a breakthrough on its own, but when it’s crafted by people who believe in it with the conviction of Heller and Powley, it becomes something very special indeed. -K.E.
Josh Singer, screenwriter (“Spotlight”)
Tasked with unpacking a tangled story with plenty of players, Singer (who previously wrote “The Fifth Estate,” a film with many of the same storytelling issues as “Spotlight” and none of the upsides) gamily took on the challenge and approached the material with the same team spirit that guided the actual Spotlight team. Matched up with director Tom McCarthy, the pair crafted one of the finest screenplays of the year, a tight, taut and totally unnerving look at the price of power and the possibilities of journalism. What a bounce back. -K.E.
Abraham Attah, actor (“Beasts of No Nation”) and Jacob Tremblay, actor (“Room”)
A good debut performance by a child actor is pretty much a lock for a spot on any breakthrough list, but these two revelatory turns by Abraham Attah and Jacob Tremblay are truly something extraordinary. As an orphaned boy turned child solider, Attah bears a weariness that is damn tragic, while Tremblay latches on to an innocence that is heartbreaking and inspiring. Both young actors have to deal with an emotional turmoil that most adults would even find hard to wrestle with, and they powerfully rise to the occasion to show the malleable minds of children and the resilient spirit it takes for them to survive the seemingly impossible. -Z.S.
László Nemes, director and Géza Röhrig, actor (“Son of Saul”)
Universally acclaimed at its Cannes premiere earlier this year, László Nemes’ first feature is a tense Auschwitz-set drama that’s unlike any Holocaust film you’ve ever seen before. Géza Röhrig plays Saul Ausländer, a Hungarian-Jewish prisoner in Auschwitz who works as a Sonderkommando member, burning the dead and cleaning the gas chambers. After coming across the body of a boy he takes for his son, he goes about a risky plan to memorialize his child in the midst of a prisoner rebellion. Nemes’ ability to inject the material of a concentration camp survival story with bracing cinematic energy is unforgettable, while Röhrig becomes a stoic force of religious devotion in a world gone completely mad. In their hands, “Son of Saul” develops a powerful edge you won’t soon forget. -Z.S.
Mya Taylor, actor and Kitana Kiki Rodriquez, actor (“Tangerine”)
You’ve heard it before: “Tangerine” is the story of two transgender prostitutes on a madcap adventure around Hollywood that actually stars two transgender actresses. It’s an unfortunately novel casting choice in this day and age and an important one at that, but the knockout power of Sean Baker’s electrifying feature isn’t the casting but how revelatory the performers are. In the hands of Mya Taylor and Kitana Kiki Rodruiquz, the comedy-drama has a ying and yang that cannot be stopped. Rodriguez is a foul-mouthed screwball force of nature. Taylor is an introspective charmer with the grace of an old school Hollywood starlet. One provides the hilarity and the other the heart, and together they are unforgettable tour-de-force. -Z.S.
David Robert Mitchell, director (“It Follows”)
A Maika Monroe’s freak out goes a long way in making “It Follows” a horror nightmare, but it’s ultimately David Robert Mitchell’s direction that makes the final product a new classic of the genre. In a complete change of pace from his modest debut, “The Myth of the American Sleepover,” Mitchell evokes everyone from Carpenter to Craven while finding his own unique spin on material and conventions that have been around for decades. Not since “The Shining” has a horror movie been so relentlessly unnerving in every detail (its artistic direction, its thumping score and indecipherable sense of time and place), and for this reason Mitchell is a 2015 breakthrough we can’t wait to see again soon. -Z.S.
Sturla Brandth Grøvlen, cinematographer (“Victoria,” “Rams”)
This year saw many of the best cinematographers in the business flexing exiting new muscles — here’s looking at you, Emmanuel Lubezski (“The Revenant”) and Roger Deakins (“Sicario”) — but it also saw some newcomers make seriously bold impressions. Enter Sturla Brandth Grøvlen, a Norwegian dynamo behind the camera who at long last broke out on the international scene thanks to the one-two punch of acclaimed festival hits “Victoria” and “Rams.” The former won in Berlin. while the latter was all the range at Cannes, where it won the Un Certain Regard section, and both have material that is truly elevated thanks to Grøvlen. His gorgeously static work in “Rams” facilitates the movie’s deadpan satire, while his startling 140-minute single shot that makes up the runtime of “Victoria” is an achievement like no other this year. -Z.S.
Mátyás Erdély, cinematographer (“Son of Saul,” “James White”)
No one captured pain, desperation and buried hope in close-up quite like Mátyás Erdély this year. The Hungarian cinematographer was behind the lens of two of the year’s most devastating movies, trapping his protagonists in not only claustrophic close-ups, but also in unrelenting long takes that force an emotional truth out of the performer that hits the viewer like a wrecking ball. In “Son of Saul,” Erdély’s crisp 35mm cinematography, which contains the action in the boxed-in 4:3 Academy ratio, leads to the perception of being trapped in a hellacious underworld while never once straining credibility. The same could be said for “James White,” which is set in the present but carries the emotional baggage of a lifetime in every frame. We expect big things are coming for this breakthrough DP. -Z.S.